In the Far East an amah is a servant or housemaid, especially a wet nurse. It comes from the Portuguese word “ama” which means nurse. It implies someone who lives in the household. This was certainly not true in my case and certainly I didn’t need a wet nurse. I needed someone who would pick up my dirty laundry and deliver it clean to my flat. A “wash amah.”
When we left the States for Malaya, we were allowed to take with us one suit case. The rest of our belongings followed about a month later. Shortly after I arrived, most of my clothes from that one suitcase were dirty and I was pretty desperate. I sent my first batch of dirty clothes to a typical Chinese laundry but it cost a lot, so I clearly had to find an alternative. When I explained my dilemma to a friend, he located for me a wash amah who would pick up all of my dirty laundry once a week and return it clean for the unbelievable cheap price of $7 (21 ringget) a month.
She was homely, of an uncertain age, and didn’t speak English and very little Malay (Bahasa Melayu) – only Chinese. Somehow, by using my English, my sign language, and a few words in Bahasa Melayu, I considered our first meeting a success and was sure that my few wishes were understood. She had said “um, um” – with a nod.
A week later, my clean laundry was returned. She delivered it by bicycle. After she picked up the next batch of dirty laundry and left, I found out that she had starched everything – including the sheets and underwear. I had forgotten to say “no starch.”
I learned the Malay word for starch (kanji) and a week later I was ready for her and said in Malay “tak mauh kanji” – don’t want starch. With a beautiful smile she said “um, um” – with a nod. Success – or so I thought.
A week later all came back – starched. Not giving up easily, my friend Robert Wang was there with me a week later to explain, in Chinese, that I didn’t want starch. She said “um, um” – with a nod.
On the fifth week, the sheets and shorts were again starched!
I gave up. On a scale of one to ten with ten being a nuclear bomb, I considered this problem a minus one. After all, it only took a couple of minutes for the sheets to soften. As to the shorts, it only took about ten steps for them to soften up and I was good to go for the whole day.
I was later told that banana leaves had natural starch in them. Perhaps she ironed on banana leaves. It didn’t matter.
One other story related to the wash amah was included in my memoir “Bargaining.” It concerned my bargaining for new underwear. I include it here, in part:
When my shorts came back from the amah’s after the first washing, there was no elastic left in them. The only thing that stopped them from coming down was the crotch in my pants.
After buying a supply of safety pins, I felt secure for the rest of my Peace Corps tenure.
I suppose that you get what you pay for.
P.S. I loved my wash amah. We always had a good laugh – even if neither of us knew what we were laughing about.